Brilliance and benevolence

Brilliance and benevolence

“When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old I admire kind people,” Abraham Joshua Heschel once told a group of senior citizens.

He was not pandering to his audience but being open and truthful. After a number of life journeys, I believe today that Rabbi Heschel was right. I can’t say whether my conclusion stems from increased wisdom or approaching old age, but I am sure that he was correct.

Earlier in life I attended a traditional yeshiva suffused with the Lithuanian ethos of Talmud study and obedience to Jewish law, whatever it demands. It taught us that our highest ethical virtues were cognitive excellence and unflinching dedication. That educational experience was shaped by a narrative about R. Elijah of Vilna. We knew him simply as “the Gaon” – “the genius” – and as the embodiment of brilliance and single-mindedness.

Our teachers never tired of recounting to us that late in life the Gaon’s sister made the long difficult journey to see her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in more than ten years. When she arrived, the Gaon’s wife greeted her and told her that the Gaon was in the back room studying Talmud, as usual. He emerged a short while later, said hello, and asked his sister how she was. Then he excused himself, saying “It’s nice of you to come, but now I must return to my studies.” In fact there is no evidence this dialogue actually occurred, but its veracity is less important than the fact that my teachers wanted me to believe it and for it to mold my character.

We learned to revere the Gaon for his genius, and he became the model to which we all aspired.

All this focus on cognitive excellence led me to study philosophy – and naturally I took to the most outstanding rationalist philosophers. My heroes became Moses Maimonides and Immanuel Kant. The medievalist Maimonides developed the most sophisticated Jewish metaphysics ever, focusing on the nature of God and achieving human excellence through acquiring knowledge. His God was austerely rational, devoid of any trace of emotion. Maimonides even claimed that anyone who believed that God had anything like the human emotion of caring was a rank heretic. Ultimately, Maimonides’ God was a necessary postulate, the locus of all metaphysical truth. Godliness was all about knowing.

The greatest modern philosopher, Kant, was also a thoroughgoing rationalist. Kant’s moral philosophy taught that there was only one ethical rule that human beings should always follow: “Be rational.”

I could never hope to be as brilliant as these two philosophers, but I absorbed the lesson that the good life was all about striving for greater knowledge and rationality. Nothing else much matters.

There is an enormous difference between pure reason – analytical intelligence – and empathetic intelligence – the ability to feel what others feel, care about their pain and be moved to alleviate it. In fact, history is replete with people who have prodigious logical intelligence but are miserable human beings. Bernard Madoff is a prime example. He was an exceptional analyst but could feel none of his victims’ suffering.

I suspect that both Maimonides and Kant suffered from this imbalance too. Maimonides believed that people without philosophic wisdom were like beasts of the field with a human form, and Kant claimed that logical consistency was a greater virtue than saving a human life. He taught that it is better to let someone die rather than lie to a would-be murder about the future victim’s whereabouts. Both thinkers are proof that logical brilliance sometimes runs amok and crowds out human empathy.

On a lesser scale, I have seen my share of rabbis who are analytic geniuses yet issue rulings utterly lacking in concern for others because they believe their legal reasoning so dictates.

I no longer admire such people. I realize that it is the capacities to empathize and act compassionately toward others that define our humanness, not impersonal brainpower. Surely it is no virtue to be mindless, but brilliance not tempered with kindness and caring is no virtue.

This is the normative teaching of the Talmudic rabbis, despite their medieval philosophic disciples or some modern Talmudists who speak in their name. The God of the Talmud is a doer of kindnesses – chesed – for others (Sotah 14a). God clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, visits those who are sick, and comforts those who are grieving. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Ketubot 62b) tells us about Rabbi Rechumei, who was constantly studying at the great yeshivah of Mehoza and visited his wife only once a year, before Yom Kippur. Once he became so engrossed in studies that he forgot to come home. His wife longed for him that Yom Kippur eve, believing every moment that R. Rechumei would soon arrive.

When she finally realized that he was not coming, a warm tear rolled down her cheek. The episode ends tragically, when the roof under which R. Rechumei was studying collapses and causes his death.

This story is a remarkable self-critique by the Talmudic rabbis of their own behavior and the culture of study. The message is unmistakable: When study and intellectual endeavor become so paramount that they leave no room for caring, the result is death. Clearly it is no virtue to pursue such a skewed value system.

Did the Vilna Gaon’s sister shed a tear when her brother refused her more than five minutes of his time? Perhaps no wet tears rolled down her cheek, but surely her soul cried out at her brother’s insensitivity. When I teach today, I study the story of R. Rechumei with my students, not the story of the Gaon.

King David told us that “The world is built with chesed” (Psalms 89:3). According to tradition, he wrote this as a tender young shepherd, not in his old age. This set of values didn’t come from sentimentality or an irrational fear of approaching mortality, but from a clear understanding of the world and human virtue.

So if presented with a choice between a naturally kind but unlearned person and a brilliant rabbi or philosopher with little empathy for other people, I’d choose the former. Both King David and Abraham Heschel knew that he is the greater human being, the one who will make the world a better place.